I Ate Dirt
The Santuario de Chimayo, named after the valley of pink granite and sandstone in which it’s located, dates back to the mysterious — maybe even miraculous — discovery of “Our Lord of Esquipulas” in 1810. Many legends surround the treasure, a gothic crucifix with Mayan motifs carved from wood, but consensus in the valley seems to be that a man named Bernardo Abeyta found it in the dirt while he was walking the hills and whipping himself in emulation of Christ’s suffering. He sent it off to a church in nearby Santa Cruz, but the next day it appeared back where he’d found it. Again he tried to give it a more prestigious home, and again the crucifix decided otherwise. So Bernardo built a church for it on the spot, and off to one side added a chamber with a pit in the middle that to this day is still full of soil said to bless those who eat it or rub it on their bodies. Since then, yet another room had to be added to contain all the abandoned crutches, casts, and testimonials of those healed by the miracle dirt of Chimayo.
Which would be quite a coup for Christianity if it weren’t for the fact that history indicates that any magic in the earth was homegrown. By the time the Spaniards got to the area, the native Tewa and Pueblo Indians had already venerated the site and its soil for the previous 700 years or so. But “paganism” didn’t present as big a problem to the 19th century church as one might have expected. The church simply “baptized the customs” of the natives and made them all good Catholics. The twin gods of war who’d been worshipped there before didn’t so much disappear as slide over to make room for the new kid on the block, a black Christ on a cross which sprouted leaves.
All of which is ancient history to the pilgrims who make their way to Chimayo in urgent need of some holy healing. The week before Easter sees 10,000 or so walk as far as a 100 miles to the shrine, but all year round a steady stream files into the little room off to the side of the sanctuary, where they kneel down and get themselves a piece of Mother Nature’s pie.
The day I visited, I witnessed people load the dirt into film canisters, plastic baggies, and paper envelopes. Some people simply wetted their fingers, dipped them in, and licked. One old woman turned to her husband for help getting the good stuff. “I can’t bend down,” she said, but he didn’t seem to hear. “I can’t bend down!” she shouted. Still no response. Finally, a younger woman scooped up a handful for the old lady, who reached down her shirt and rubbed it on her right breast — whether it was for cancer or an aching heart I was too shy to ask. She had a pinch left over, so she sprinkled it into her husband’s hands. He rubbed it on his ears and smiled.
Another woman came in with a tupperware bin, and after a few minutes of praying shoveled the dirt into the container like it was flour. She was short and solid and very pretty, with black hair down to her hips and a determined set to her eyes. Her name was Geraldine Trujillo. After she left the church I asked her what she needed the dirt for. “It’s good for everything,” she said. She gestured to one of her sons, a big boy named Desidero who looked all the more tired and unhappy in contrast with the giant clown’s face tattooed on his right arm. “He just almost died three weeks ago,” she said. “He had a surgery.” Desidero nodded and traced the incision around his midsection. “My other son,” his mother continued, “they say they got to amputate his arm. He needs the dirt too. And my daughter-in-law” — a big-eyed brunette who stood beside Geraldine, somehow looking pale despite her dark skin — “she got the tumor.” Geraldine turned to her. “What are you gonna do with the dirt?” she asked, playing the reporter. “Rub it in,” the younger woman replied.
“Do you eat it?” I asked.
“Oh yeah, of course,” Geraldine said.
“How? Do you mix it with water?”
“No, no.” She pulled the tupperware tub open, took out a thick pinch of soil, and sprinkled it on her tongue. “That’s all it takes,” she said. “And you have a miracle.”
Later I returned to the chamber of the dirt. Despite a long line of salvation-seekers, the pit — just a foot-and-a-half across — was still full. Most visitors believe that it renews itself, despite the fact that the church makes no secret of the hill of blessed earth out back from which a caretaker routinely replenishes the supply. “I buy it,” the parish priest told me. “Twenty-five tons a year.”
Eating earth, or “geophagy,” kind of makes sense, at least as symbolism. What could bring you in closer contact with your god’s handiwork than ingesting its rawest material? The dirt eaters of Chimayo, modern Catholic or ancient Pueblo, weren’t the first to go straight to the source for divine communion. Most faiths include some mystical sects that believe in eating dirt as a ritual, and kids of every creed are born geophages. At Chimayo I witnessed a gang of pre-schoolers rolling the dirt into Juicyfruit wrappers.
The sanctuary’s priest doesn’t actually believe the red dust in the hole has any special qualities. “It’s faith that does the work,” he said. “Some of the visitors like to mix in a little dirt.”
I did, and although I didn’t feel any miracles rumbling in my belly, the dirt tasted pretty good. For novice earth eaters, it’s best to start with a dab of dust followed by a pebble of dirt that will easily disintegrate on your tongue. At first the dirt of Chimayo is bland and a little slimy as it becomes mud in your mouth. But then you get down to the grit and a pungent, hard rock flavor kicks in. The particles stay in your teeth for ten minutes afterward. Chew gently; you’re crunching on creation.
Jeff Sharlet is a founding editor of Killing the Buddha, coauthor with Peter Manseau of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible (2004) and co-editor of Believer, Beware (2009). Sharlet is also the author of Sweet Heaven When I Die, (2011), C Street, (2010), and the New York Times bestseller The Family (2008).